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Bible Commentaries

Benson's Commentary of the Old and New Testaments

Philemon 1

A.M. 4068. A.D. 64.

After an endearing salutation, Paul,

(1,) highly commends and thanks God for Philemon’s steady faith in Christ and fervent love to the saints, particularly the poor, Philemon 1:1-7 .

(2,) In a most obliging and affecting manner recommends Onesimus, formerly a runaway slave, but now a noted convert to Christ, and returning to his master, Philemon 1:8-22 .

(3,) Concludes with salutations and a benediction, Philemon 1:23-25 .

Verses 1-3

Philemon 1:1-3 . Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ To whom, as such, Philemon could deny nothing. Paul does not call himself an apostle, because he wrote to Philemon only in the character of a friend, to request a favour rather than to enjoin what was fit, Philemon 1:8-9; and Timothy Who was now with Paul at Rome, though, it is probable, not in prison; our brother So the apostle calls him, to add dignity to his character; unto Philemon, our dearly beloved That is, the dearly beloved of us both; and fellow-labourer In the gospel. This shows that Paul and Philemon were personally known to each other. And to our beloved Apphia Thought by some of the fathers to be Philemon’s wife, to whom also the business about which Paul writes in part belonged; and Archippus our fellow-soldier In that holy warfare in which we are engaged. This person, Lightfoot thinks, was Philemon’s son. The apostle, by addressing this letter not only to Philemon, but to these persons also, and to all the believers that met in his house, and by wishing them all manner of felicity, interested the whole of Philemon’s family to aid him in his solicitation for Onesimus. Grace to you, &c. See on Romans 1:7.

Verses 4-6

Philemon 1:4-6. I thank my God, &c. This epistle, which infinitely transcends all the wisdom of this world, gives us an admirable specimen how Christians ought to treat of secular affairs from higher principles; making mention of thee in my prayers See Romans 1:9; Hearing of thy love and faith “By telling Philemon that he thanked God always in his prayers for his increasing faith and love, he, in a very delicate manner, prepared him for listening to the request he was about to make in behalf of Onesimus. For it was telling him, in an indirect manner, that his own benevolent disposition would lead him to pardon Onesimus, although he had greatly offended him.” That the communication of thy faith may become effectual, &c. That is, that thy liberality to the saints, proceeding from thy faith, or the fruits of thy faith communicated to them, in the many good offices which thou dost, may be effectual for bringing others to the acknowledgment of those good things which are in thee and thy family; in, or toward, Christ Jesus Or, as others understand the verse, the apostle prayed that Philemon’s endeavours to communicate his faith in Christ to others, or to bring them to believe in Christ as he did, might be rendered effectual through the evident excellence of his own example and that of his family, inducing them to entertain a favourable opinion of that religion which produced such beneficial effects on the conduct of those who embraced it.

Verse 7

Philemon 1:7. For we have great joy and consolation Timothy and I are greatly rejoiced and comforted; in, or by, thy love To God and his people; because the bowels of the saints That is, the saints themselves, to whom it seems Philemon’s house was open; are refreshed by thee, brother So the apostle terms him; not merely because he was a believer in Christ, but because he was one whom he tenderly loved. “The refreshment of which the apostle speaks was produced by the relief which Philemon’s works of charity brought to them in their distresses. And the saints who were thus refreshed were not those only who lived in Philemon’s neighbourhood, but those also who were driven from their homes for the name of Christ, or who went about preaching the gospel. Perhaps also the apostle meant that the knowledge of Philemon’s charitable actions gave great joy even to the saints who had no need of his good offices.” Macknight.

Verses 8-9

Philemon 1:8-9. Wherefore Because we are so well assured of thy benevolent disposition, and thy constant readiness to do every good in thy power; though I might be much bold in Christ Might take great freedom in virtue of my relation to him, and the authority he has given me; to enjoin thee and others that which is convenient Proper and reasonable to be done. Yet for love’s sake, &c. That is, instead of using my authority; I rather beseech thee By that love which thou bearest to the saints and me. In how handsome a manner does the apostle just hint at, and immediately drop, the consideration of his power to command, and tenderly entreat Philemon to hearken to his friend, his aged friend, and now a prisoner for Christ! to Paul, his spiritual father; Paul, grown old in the service of the gospel, and now also confined with a chain for preaching it; considerations which must have made a deep impression on Philemon, who, being himself a sincere Christian, could not but wish to gratify one who, at the expense of unspeakable labour and suffering, had done the greatest service to mankind, by communicating to them the knowledge of God, of Christ, and of the gospel.

Verses 10-14

Philemon 1:10-14. I beseech thee There is a beautiful emphasis in the repetition of these words, which he had introduced in the preceding verse; for my son The son of my age. The order of the original words is this; 1 entreat thee for a son of mine, whom I have begotten in my bonds, Onesimus On this Macknight remarks as follows: “Onesimus’s name at the end of the sentence has a fine effect, by keeping the reader in suspense. This every person of taste must perceive. The apostle would not so much as mention Onesimus’s name till he had prepared Philemon for hearing it; and when he does mention it, instead of calling him a fugitive slave, or even a slave simply, he calls him his own son, to show that he had a tender affection for him, and was much interested in his welfare. And then, by telling Philemon that he had begotten him in his bonds, he insinuated that Onesimus was not discouraged from becoming a Christian by the apostle’s bonds. Being, therefore, a firm believer, he was not unworthy of the pardon the apostle solicited for him. Indeed, in this beautiful passage there is a group of the most affecting arguments closely crowded together. On the one hand we have Philemon’s own reputation for goodness; his friendship to the apostle, his respect for his character, reverence for his age, (now it is supposed about sixty or sixty-three,) compassion for his bonds, and at the same time an insinuation of that obedience which Philemon owed to him as an apostle. On the other hand we have Onesimus’s repentance and return to virtue, his profession of Christianity, notwithstanding the evils to which it exposed him, and his being the object of his spiritual father’s tender affection. In short, every word contains an argument. Philemon therefore must have been exceedingly affected by this moving passage.” Who in time past was to thee unprofitable We have just seen with what endearment the apostle called Onesimus his son, begotten in his bonds, before he mentioned his name; here we see with what fine address, as soon as he had mentioned it, he touches on his former misbehaviour, giving it the softest name possible, and instantly passing on to the happy change that was now made upon him, so disposing Philemon to attend to his request, and the motives whereby he enforced it: but now profitable No one should be expected to be a good servant before he is a good man. The apostle manifestly alludes to his name Onesimus, which signifies profitable. To thee and to me Or rather, even as to me. To show the sincerity of Onesimus’s repentance, the apostle mentions the experience which he himself had had of his benevolent disposition, in the many affectionate services which he had received from him during his confinement. After such a proof Philemon could have no doubt of Onesimus’s piety and fidelity. “It has been justly observed, that it was strange Onesimus, who had been so wicked in the pious family of Philemon, amidst all the religious opportunities he enjoyed there, should meet with conversion in his rambles at Rome. Instances have often happened somewhat of a similar nature; but it is very unjustifiable, and may probably be fatal, for any to presume on the like extraordinary interpositions of providence and grace in their favour.” Doddridge. Whom How agreeable and useful soever he might have been to me here; I have sent back to thee again; thou therefore receive him Into thy family with readiness and affection. Receive him, did I say? nay rather, receive, as it were, my own bowels A person whom I so tenderly love, that he may seem, as it were, to carry my heart along with him whithersoever he goes. Such is the natural affection of a father in Christ toward his spiritual children. As Bengelius observes, by laying aside his apostolical authority, St. Paul had brought himself to a level with Philemon; and now to exalt Onesimus, and to display that dignity which a man acquires by becoming a sincere Christian, he calls him, not his son simply, but his own bowels; or, as it is expressed Philemon 1:17, his very self. Whom I would have retained, that in thy stead, &c. That he might have performed those services for me, which thou, if present, wouldest gladly have performed thyself. Thus the apostle insinuates to Philemon the obligation he was under to assist, with his personal services, him who was his spiritual father; and more especially while he was confined with a chain for preaching the gospel of Christ. But without thy mind That is, without thy express consent; would I do nothing In this affair. From this we learn, that however just our title may be to beneficent actions from others, they must not be compelled to perform them; they must do them voluntarily; that thy benefit should not be as it were of necessity Or by constraint, for Philemon would not have refused it; but willingly “If Onesimus had remained with the apostle in Rome, and Philemon had pardoned him at the apostle’s intercession, that favour would not have appeared so clearly to have been bestowed voluntarily, as when Onesimus returned and put himself in his master’s power, and was received again into his family, The apostle, therefore, sent him back to Philemon, that his receiving him might be known to have proceeded from his own merciful disposition.” Macknight.

Verses 15-16

Philemon 1:15-16. For perhaps he therefore departed Δια τουτο εχωρισθη , for this reason he was separated; a soft expression, to denote Onesimus’s running away from his master; for it contains an insinuation that this had happened providentially; for a season Προς ωραν , for an hour, a little while; that thou shouldest receive him Ινα αιωνιον αυτον απεχης , mightest have or possess him; for ever That is, as Dr. Doddridge paraphrases the clause, “That he might not only be dear and useful to thee during all the remainder of his life, as a servant, whose ear is, as it were, bored to the door of thy house, (to allude to the Hebrew custom, Exodus 21:6,) but that he might indeed be a source of eternal delight to thee in that infinitely better world, where all distinctions between masters and their slaves shall cease, even that world of complete liberty and everlasting friendship.” The apostle here made the same kind of apology for Onesimus which Joseph made for his brethren, (Genesis 45:5,) Now therefore be not grieved; for God did send me before you to preserve life. The providence of God often brings good out of evil. Yet we must not for that reason do evil that good may come. Not now as a servant Or slave, as he was formerly, when ignorant and wicked, much less as a fugitive slave, to be long frowned upon; but above a slave, or even a common servant As standing in another, a much more dear and honourable relation; as a brother beloved, especially to me Whom he has attended with great assiduity in my afflictions; but how much more unto thee To whom he belongs; both in the flesh As a dutiful servant; and in the Lord As a fellow-Christian. That Philemon might not be offended at him for calling his fugitive slave his brother, the apostle acknowledges him for his own brother also, as being now a son of God, and an heir of life eternal.

Verses 17-20

Philemon 1:17-20. If thou count me therefore a partner Κοινωνον , a companion, one having fellowship with thee in Christ, or a sharer with thee in the blessings of the gospel, the dearest bond of friendship; receive him as myself Even as thou wouldest receive me, if I could have the satisfaction of paying thee a visit in person. If he hath wronged thee Ει τι ηδικησε , if he hath injured thee in any thing; or oweth thee aught We cannot infer from this that Onesimus had robbed his master: it seems to be no more than a soft way of expressing the loss which Philemon had sustained by being deprived of his slave’s service; put that on my account Charge it to me. I have written this with my own hand And do thereby, as it were, give thee legal security for it; I will repay it If thou requirest it; albeit I do not say, &c. That is, not to say to thee, that as I was the instrument of thy conversion to Christ; thou owest unto me even thine own self besides Besides pardoning Onesimus, thou owest to me, under God, thy very existence as a Christian, or the present and everlasting salvation of thy soul. What an immense obligation! Yet rather than be constrained to solicit Onesimus’s pardon on account of that obligation, he would himself pay to Philemon every thing Onesimus owed him. How ungrateful would Philemon have showed himself if he had refused to grant the apostle’s desire. Yea, brother Let me prevail upon thee in this request; let me have joy of thee in the Lord Let me obtain this kindness from thee for the Lord’s sake, which will much rejoice me. Refresh my bowels Give me the most exquisite and Christian pleasure; in the Lord In a matter so agreeable to the will of Christ. The word αναπαυσον , rendered refresh, “is very emphatical. It literally signifies, to appease, or quiet, which strongly intimates the commotion he felt through the ardour of his concern for Onesimus; and seems to represent the eagerness of his desire for his re-establishment in Philemon’s family, by the appetite of hunger.” Doddridge.

Verses 21-22

Philemon 1:21-22. Having confidence in thy obedience That thou wilt comply with my request; I wrote Rather, I have written; to thee With great freedom; knowing that thou wilt do more than I say Wilt show Onesimus more kindness than I have expressed. Some commentators think the apostle here insinuates to Philemon, that it would be proper for him to give Onesimus his freedom, and many are of opinion that he actually did so. But withal Αμα δε , but at the same time, that I beseech thee to pardon Onesimus, I request thee also to prepare me a lodging In Colosse. “The apostle,” says Macknight, “having experienced the advantage of having a hired house of his own in Rome, where he preached the gospel to all who came to him, very prudently desired Philemon to provide for him such another house in Colosse, and not a lodging in Philemon’s own house, as some suppose. It seems he proposed to stay a while in Colosse, and wished to have a house in some frequented part of the city, to receive conveniently all who might be desirous of information concerning his doctrine.” Theodoret observes, that the apostle’s resolution to visit Philemon soon, signified to him in this letter, naturally added weight to his solicitation in behalf of Onesimus. For I trust Ελπιζω , I hope; that through your prayers I shall be given unto you Shall be restored to liberty. The efficacy which in Scripture is ascribed to prayer, is a great encouragement to the people of God to have recourse to it in all their straits, agreeably to the exhortation and example of Christ and his apostles. But to render prayer effectual, it must, as James observes, (James 1:6,) be offered in faith; that is, in a full persuasion of the wisdom and power, goodness and faithfulness of God, and a confidence in him that, when we ask with sincerity, earnestness, and importunity, what is according to his will, or what his word authorizes us to ask, he will grant our petitions, as far as will be for our good and his glory. See 1 John 5:14-15. On this passage, Whitby justly observes, that if the apostle believed the prayers of angels and departed saints were effectual for procuring blessings to God’s people on earth, it is strange that he hath not, throughout the whole of his epistles, so much as once addressed any prayers to them, or directed others so to do.

Verses 23-25

Philemon 1:23-25. There salute thee Epaphras, &c. Respecting these persons, see on Colossians 4:10; Colossians 4:12; Colossians 4:14. In that chapter, Philemon 1:10, Aristarchus is called the apostle’s fellow-prisoner; but as that particular is not mentioned here, it is not improbable that he had obtained his liberty about the time when this letter was written. Demas afterward forsook the apostle, namely, during his second imprisonment, from love to this present world, 2 Timothy 4:10. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ That is, his unmerited favour, and the influences of his Spirit; be with your spirit Imparting that wisdom and power, that peace and comfort, which nothing but the communications of his grace can give. As the word υμων , your, is plural, it signifies that the apostle’s wish did not respect Philemon alone, but all the persons mentioned in the inscription of this letter.

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Bibliographical Information
Benson, Joseph. "Commentary on Philemon 1". Benson's Commentary. 1857.